Big screen adaptations of classic fairytale stories in recent years have often tried to provide a new perspective, either skewed or created, in an attempt to make new what once was old. Maleficent was portrayed as a misunderstood victim, Hansel and Gretel took up witch hunting and stories like that in ‘Into the Woods‘ twist the familiar into something contemporary. In Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh is fully content with bringing the 1950 Disney cartoon into equally colourful, live-action life.
In a tale that is likely to be familiar even to those who have never seen the original animated film, Cinderella (Lily James) endures a life of servitude under the command of her wicked step-mother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and slightly less wicked but infinitely more dull step-sisters Drisella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, respectively). What Branagh’s version gives us is a more tangible reason for Cinderella’s seemingly endless patience and kindness. As Cinderella’s mother passes away she leaves her daughter with parting words that will define her daughter’s ability to tolerate life with the Tremaines: “Have courage, and be kind.” Fair enough, but there is a line and Cinderella finds it far too late to seem empowered or strong-willed and instead decides to take every command and snide remark with a nod of the head and the turn of her heel.
The fairytale of Cinderella must see her torn down before she gets what she wants so that we are actively rooting for her when she finally does get her happy ending. However, with precious few signs of Cinderella ever showing any bite, she seems less like the downtrodden heroine and more like a willing doormat. Meanwhile, Blanchett’s performance as Lady Tremaine is done a disservice with a script that sees her ill-will towards Cinderella immediately cranked up to 11 as soon as the father is out of the picture. There are brief moments in the film that hint at reasons for Lady Tremaine’s cruelty. The film provides many more examples of this cruelty as she gradually shows her true colors. She all but spells her character’s motivation out by the end but by that point any sympathy that might be had has already been lost. Hint: she wears green for a reason.
Branagh’s film outdoes the original in its handling of Cinderella and Prince Charming’s (Richard Madden) relationship. Their woodland meet-cute sees them on even ground (by way of playful half-truths) and their initial encounter fuels a character arc between the Prince and his father in the latter half of the film. The film’s two hour runtime tries to fit in screen time for everyone and it pays off more largely in the scenes between the Prince and his father (Derek Jacobi). Later in the film there is an attempt to up the stakes as Lady Tremaine begins scheming with the palace’s Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) but since many in the audience knows how the story ends, Cinderella’s fate is never really in doubt at any point in the film.
Predictably, the characters go through their familiar motions but all the while walking across richly decorated sets in full, colourful costumes. Chris Weitz’s screenplay lags behind in energy in comparison to production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell’s visions of Cinderella’s world. Every frame is packed with 19th century set design and furniture while the costumes span many eras and colours lending the world an appropriately fantastical quality. Pumpkins do eventually turn into carriages and lizards into footmen but it all feels more like magical realism rather than outright fantasy.
Helena Bonham Carter’s appearance as the Fairy Godmother is a welcome, waking jolt of energy in a film that moves almost sleepily from one plot beat to another. She’s only there for a few minutes and her absence thereafter is absolutely felt, at least until Blanchett appears once more to liven up the proceedings. I do wonder if Carter’s narration would be more enjoyable if it were as loopy and amusingly scatterbrained as her onscreen appearance, but there probably wouldn’t be room for that in such a rigidly straight adaptation.
All told Cinderella‘s greatest offense is that since it’s based on a very familiar fairy tale, it is very predictable and may even come across as boring at times. The performers, for as little as they were given to work with, seem to do their best with what they have for a live action adaptation of one of Disney’s most beloved animated classics, and a pretty faithful adaptation too it appears. Despite the computer animated mice making regular appearances, the fantastical portions of the film are limited to scenes with the Fairy Godmother and when the clock strikes midnight. We watch Cinderella get walked all over and you almost want to reach into the screen and shake her into action. Have courage and be kind, Cinderella….but to a point.